True Heroism


I subscribe to The New Yorker, and its diverse and interesting pieces sustain me during my long and varied commutes across buses and trains in the Bronx each day.

A recent piece on explorer and all-around bad-ass Henry Worsley touched a nerve. This is by author David Grann, so it’s great writing, and he has clear admiration for Worsley. Do yourself a favor and read it.

Yet despite also admiring Worsley’s relentless drive and leadership, I ended the piece feeling upset, even angry.

He left behind a wife and two children who loved him fiercely. For what? To trudge across the vast, icy, crevassed expanse of the South Pole on his own in order to fulfil what seems to me a prurient fantasy. That speaks of either immense despair or delusion, not of heroism.

I think it is much more heroic to learn to bear inner demons quietly, while tending to the needs of your family and society.

The loss of a man as strong as Henry Worsley is all the more tragic in consideration of all the good he could still be enacting if he had decided to put his energies towards the ones around him, rather than towards a solo trek across the ice.

—The White Darkness, David Grann / The New Yorker


Impressions of Philadelphia

Taken in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in April ...
Image via Wikipedia

Finally got back from our “vacation” in Philly. We stayed in Center City, which one would assume would be a bustling part of the city, but we were constantly taken aback by just how quiet it was. Where are all the people? Are they all on vacation? Why aren’t cars honking at each other? These were some of the questions we asked as we walked the streets.

My observations will naturally be generalized from only the few square miles that we saw there, so I have no idea if this rings true or not. Native Philadelphians, feel free to correct me if necessary. Here are my impressions of Philly:

  • After NYC, Philly feels much less dense
  • But even though it is more spread out, everything we wanted to see was in surprisingly short walking distance
  • It has a nice historical feel to it
  • Though it also has an accompanying air of decay
  • There seems to be an abundance of young, successful (-looking) single women, at least in the places we went out to
  • There’s no shortage of a diversity of quality dining options
  • Philly kind of reminded me of San Francisco, minus the hills and the hippies
  • Which may be because the subway system is very reminiscent of SF’s BART
  • There are some really down and out folks in Philly–the blight of drug abuse is readily evident
  • When we got back to NYC, I speculated that perhaps down-and-outers were just more apparent in Philly than here simply because in NYC they get lost in the crowd
  • If there’s Latinos in Philly, then they must be somewhere other than the City Center
  • The art museums are nice, and it’s cool the way they have a whole “museum row” kind of thing
  • God bless the Amish–those soft pretzels we ate at Reading (why is this pronounced “Redding”? What’s up with East Coast spellings and pronounciations, like Houston? Is this a Dutch thing?) Terminal Market were damn good!
  • We only ate one cheesesteak, and it sucked. I subsequently learned that the City Center is NOT the place to look for cheesesteaks. I’ll thus reserve my judgement on that matter until I actually taste an authentic one
  • Do all the white people drive cars everywhere? What’s wrong with taking public transportation? Maybe it was just the part of town we were in?
  • One complaint that soured our perspective at the end of our visit: you can’t buy just one dang token for the subway! You have to buy at least 2! What the hell?!
  • In NYC, in any given direction you’ll hit a Starbucks, a Rite-Aid, a Duane Reade, and a CVS, not necessarily in that order. We were pleasantly surprised to find that downtown Philly didn’t have the same obsession with franchises and pharmacies that New Yorkers seem to. The franchises were certainly a presence, but they didn’t completely dominate

Overall, I enjoyed Philly, and while it doesn’t exactly call out to me to live there, if I was forced to move there, I wouldn’t complain. It has a neat sense of history, a great selection of culinary offerings, and all the cultural benefits that make a city a city. I like the way the slight decrease in density equates with a slight decrease in aggression. Philly, I’ll be coming back to see what these cheesesteaks are really all about. And to have another couple of your soft pretzels.

Philly and Futurity and Stuff

Right now I’m stationed down in Philly. I’m in the midst of what is known formally to the populace as “Mid-Winter Recess,” informally to the populace as “Ski Week,” and to teachers and students as “Party Time”–although truth be told, for teachers that really just translates into “catching-up-on-curriculum, IEPs, graduate school work, blog posts, and-other-related-miscellany, such-as-sleep.”

I’ve ventured down to Philly because I just wanted to get the hell out of NYC. Originally, my fiancee and I envisioned somewhere warm, sunny, and most decidedly “un-city,” but alas, we realized that train rides out to such locations would be both time-consuming and costly. So, eventually, we settled on Philly, since at the very least, it would be an entirely new city, and as a novitiate East Coaster, I felt obligated to begin exploring my regional vicinity and environs a bit more. It’s still kind of mind boggling to me just how close major cities on the East Coast are to one other, yet each with their own distinctive and unique cultures. On the West Coast, our cities are generally pretty spread out, and when they are relatively close to each other, they tend to just kind of merge together in the suburban interstitial spaces, such as between San Diego and Los Angeles.

I’m fighting a tenacious cold/flu/brain tumor or something that just won’t let me free. This always seems to happen to me when I get extended time off, as if my immune system has been just staving off complete collapse. It’s also that time of year, right around when the pressures of test prep and quality review (or as in the case of my school, an ELA “audit”) hit the fan, right around when you’ve pretty much stopped exercising, right around when you’ve pretty much worked yourself down to the bone with constant 70+ hour workweeks (think I’m joking? Think again. Welcome to teaching, with a wee bit o’ grad school and after-school sprinkled on top, my friends).

Anyway, enough whining, I just wanted to clue you in to where I am at this particular moment in space-time. Next up on my agenda is that I 1) want to lay out how this blog (and my life) is shifting in nature and 2) what specific issues in education I’ll attempt to tackle here and elsewhere over the next few months.

1 ) It’s been apparent for some time that the nature of my blog is shifting. One cause is that since I’ve moved out to NYC and begun working like a dog—first at Trader Joe’s as a novitiate manager, and now as a novitiate special education public school teacher in a “high needs” school—I simply don’t have the time to post much anymore. Similarly, my posts aren’t generally of the self-reflective nature of the past for the same reason. But that’s OK, because that’s a reflection of my life now. What’s also changing are the subjects of my posts—I’m moving from posts of an inherently personal nature to more professional concerns. Much of my life now is embedded in public education. I can’t escape it. I dream of my students. I am “on” all day, performing for them, delivering instruction for them, reading to them. I spend my nights preparing lessons, writing papers, writing IEPs, or keeping up with the latest in educational news and policy. It’s become the bread and butter of my daily existence, and hence, it will become the overt subject of many of my blog posts hereon. However, I’m going to continue to write here the way I’ve always wrote; this blog has always been first and foremost a spontaneous and formative template for my thoughts, and in that respect, it will not change. And not to worry, I will continue to post “fun” pieces such as questing for furniture in NJ. The pieces on education that are specifically written for a wider audience I will post to GothamSchools in their community section.

I am well aware that the times that my blog has gotten the most random incoming traffic has been when I post pieces on popular topics such as “love.” Alas, now that my love life is stable (I’m getting married this summer, BTW—so add planning a wedding on top of the list above), I just don’t have much of that impetus from loneliness or angst to post on such matters frequently. As I’ve noted before, passion can—and should—be everyday, but it’s simply not always going to find it’s way into my posts, as much of my focus right now is on the outer realm. Such is the life of work. You can blame our Puritan forefathers for that (I think. If you know of some better targets to blame, please notify me).

2) The topics which I will begin exploring in more depth will be a continuation from where I began in a very general and abstract sense—with the notion of public schools as ecosystems. What I would like to now explore are the concepts of:

  • Curriculum: the “hidden curriculum” in addition to the actual curriculum (or the absence thereof), and how those two things tie in together, as well as how the ideas of achievement and equity tie into curriculum. I will couple this discussion with the exploration of “open source curriculum” that I have already begun here, and then tie that in with a current project of mine to begin the open source process with other teachers
  • How I am progressing towards goals I set forth earlier this year for my school
  • Information Technology: how online collaboration can potentially level the playing field somewhat and empower teacher voice in education policy (this goes along with my open source project and work with VIVA, which I will also do a post on)
  • Further discussion of how my written voice is changing in tandem with my professional development, via such concepts of diplomacy vs. opinion
  • Qualitative Data vs. Quantitative Data: I would like to challenge the prevalence of quantitative data in our research and policy frameworks, as well as to challenge assumptions behind debates of teaching as an art or a science
  • Measuring the intangibles: how do we move our limited focus beyond that of an individual teacher or student and onto the more important idea of measuring the trust, relationships, and contexts within a school?

Stay tuned for all this and more, such as my thoughts on Philly.

The City Mouse and the Country Mouse

Being back in Tahoe has been more than just a trip down memory lane–it’s been practically magical. While talking with old friends, drinking great West Coast microbrews, hiking up rocky, wildflower speckled mountains, or chilling out on a sailboat on a lake, I’ve felt an almost visceral pain. It’s that bittersweet awareness that this is a special place for me that I won’t probably see again for a long time hence.

There are many benefits to living in New York City, which mainly consists in its plenitude of social offerings. But though I’ve been there for over 2 years, I have few close friends to chill out with on a frequent basis. Coming back out here and hanging out with good people is what really makes me miss Tahoe. Not to mention the looming pine laden ridge-lines and dry, boulder strewn mountains.

One of the reasons I left was that I was craving metropolitan human culture–things like museums, live music, and multifarious places to wet your whistle. And this is one of the great draws of the big city. But now that I’m on the other side, of course now what I miss is the lonely midnight sound of the sierra wind rushing down the trees. That surrounding, everpresent quiet sentience of nature.

In the city, you not only have access to the pinnacles of human accomplishment, but also the constant, in-your-face reminders of human struggle. The rude, the loud, the aggressive. Sometimes I just want to get away, but there’s nowhere really to escape to. No 3,000 feet to climb to a nearby mountaintop.

Is it possible to get the best of both worlds? Some place that has all the cultural benefits of the city, but immediate access to the solitude of nature? I don’t know, but when I find it, I’ll know I’ve found a place I might more readily call home.

To Tahoe

Fallen Leaf Lake and Lake Tahoe

I left South Lake Tahoe nearly three years ago to embark on the journey of adulthood. I’ve been meaning to go back for a while, but adapting to NYC and trying to keep my nose above the water has kept me busy. Now that I’m a teacher and I have the summer off, I’m taking this occasion to return to Tahoe. It’s a beautiful place, and while I don’t regret leaving, I certainly do miss it. I went through a lot of experiences and met a lot of people there that directed me to the path I am now on. So I am excited to go back because Tahoe holds a lot of meaning for me. It’s where I really began to find my own strength. It’s where I developed a stronger work ethic and began to develop professionally, where I fell in love with hiking, where I learned the value of solitude, where I learned how to create an environment where people could hang out and have a good conversation, and it’s where I made a lot of lasting friendships. It’s a place where I experienced the extreme depths of loneliness and sorrow, but also where I experienced the deeper ecstasy in love, nature, and self-awareness. I think about it a lot–who couldn’t reminisce about the pristine mountain air and pine trees and placid lakes while immersed in subways and ghettos, stress and exhaustion?

I’ve successfully adapted to New York City. I’ve survived working my ass off for 9 months as a new manager at a highly successful national grocery retailer and earned the respect of people who had every reason to dislike me, since I was an outsider to their community and their business. I’ve survived months on little sleep and long middle of the night commutes. I’ve survived a school year with some of the most challenging students in the city in one of the most poverty stricken areas of the city. I’ve survived being cussed out, insulted, and otherwise abused on a daily basis for the last 10 months, yet succeeded in keeping my students in their seats.

So yeah, I think I can confidently say that I’ve adapted to this city. Going back to California and seeing that giant beautiful lake at 6,300 feet surrounded by glaciated mountains and taking in a fresh breath of that pure air again. . . It will be like a little taste of sorrow of what I have left behind, and a little taste of victory of what I have accomplished. But most importantly–I just can’t wait to see some old friends again and share a glass of New Belgium beer or Chartreuse with them. Here’s to Tahoe.

Go Beyond

Gotta escape that zone of sameness and bland expectation, where your complacent everyday self knows exactly what it will do (nothing) and who it will see (noone). Break the cycle of doldrum limbo stagnancy and force yourself into a situation wherein you know you will be uncomfortable and scared to go, cuz in that place of strange alien modish pressure you will be taken beyond what you can control, and you will be forced to be exactly what you are in that exact moment of place-time circumstance. In all of your imperfect, half-formed glory. Go, no matter your status, your age, your defined self in-context: go to places that you have never seen, go to people you have never met, stick yourself into sketchiness, fear, gray dim areas of uncertainty, where you don’t speak the language, and you have to gesture to make yourself understood, and people are tattoed and pierced and confused and full of life. Do this, and you will never despair. Do this, and your fear will lessen. So that you are not scared to live. So that you are not scared to die. Because the two are one and the same. So go go go go go. The tether that holds you to yourself cannot be broken by anyone except yourself.  Be yourself and go to places where you do not belong.

Vuelo back home

Sitting in the aeropuerto to vamoose back to The City. WTF happened to free wi-fi? Should be like water.

I had fun in the city, and must admit to feeling some pangs of regret that I don’t live in a place where I can walk down the street to a supermarket where they have absolutely everything you could ever hunger for, including 25 types of dark chocolate and the freshest bread basket produce ever. It’s been sunny as hell here, which I s’pose I cain’t really complain about, excepting that it has burnt my skin to a reddened crisp.

The nuptial ceremony was great fun, and I consumed so much red wine that I think I turned French overnight. The reading went well, although I got kind of nervous beforehand since the microphone didn’t work so I had to belt it out sans amplification.

I got to see and catch up with folks I hadn’t seen in years, which was nice. I couldn’t have asked for a better trip. Thanks for the carpet and good times, Willie, thanks for the sweet breakfast and recording, Seth and Shelley, thanks for the conversation and conviviality, Anna, and sorry I didn’t have more time for nargilah, James and Jenny and Ashley. And congrats again to Matt and Sue!

So long for now, San Francisco.